Heimdall: a guide to Norse mythology’s ‘watchman’

You may know of Heimdall from the Marvel movies or comics, but depictions can sometimes vary between the original Norse mythology and modern-day interpretations. 

Heimdall had special gifts including super sharp hearing and eyesight
Emil Doepler  (CC)

Perhaps you’ve heard of the name Heimdall before, but how much do you really know about “the watchman of the North”? 

Who is Heimdall in Norse mythology?
What are Heimdall’s abilities?
What is Heimdall’s story? 
How many mothers does Heimdall have?
How did Heimdall die?
Who killed Heimdall? 
Heimdall vs Loki
The original Heimdall vs the Marvel Heimdall
How did Heimdall have a son?

Who is Heimdall in Norse mythology?

One of the many Norse Gods, Heimdall ((which comes from the from Old Norse Heimdallr and is pronounced “hame-dall”) was known as the guardian of the kingdom of Asgard. 

Asgard was home to the fortress of the Aesir, a tribe of Gods that included Odin, Thor, Freya, Loki as well as Heimdall.

The first written mention of Heimdall is in Snorri Sturluson’s epic Poetic Edda.

Heimdall was described as a tall and attractive man with gold teeth. He was bright and noble, and some called him “the whitest of the Gods”.

Heimdall is described as the 'whitest' of the Norse gods

He sat on top of the Bifröst, otherwise known as the rainbow bridge. This bridge is what connected the human world to Asgard. Heimdall kept watch and guarded the land from there. 

With his horn – called Gjallarhorn – in hand, Heimdall was always prepared to alert the residents of Asgard when there was any sign of danger or Ragnarök approaching (AKA, the ultimate doom of the Gods).

What are Heimdall’s abilities?

Heimdall possessed incredible senses: according to legend, his eyesight was so keen that he was able to see for hundreds of miles in both day and night. 

And his hearing was so acute that he could hear the blades of grass grow and the wool growing on sheep. Heimdall also required very little sleep.

In the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, Heimdall is described as needing less sleep than a bird.

All of these superhuman skills made him the perfect candidate to be the designated watchman of Asgard.

What is Heimdall’s story? 

In Norse mythology, Heimdall was born from the waves and is one of Odin’s many sons and the brother of Thor.

Heimdall had nine mothers
Nils Asplund (CC)

His home was a fortress in the sky beside the Bifröst called the Himinbjörg, which means “sky cliffs”. 

He lived a lonely life of solitude because of his desire to succeed in his duties. 

Every day Heimdall would watch and listen. He lived to protect the Gods of Asgard and look after the nine realms that are connected by Yggdrasil, the eternal world tree. 

As a result, Heimdall did not have much of a connection with his fellow Norse deities

Heimdall, being the protector he was, foresaw the events of Ragnarök before the other Gods.

When it began, Heimdall sounded his horn to awaken the deities of the Aesir, and he knew it was doom for him and Asgard.

How many mothers does Heimdall have?

So what about Heimdall’s mother? Well, that is a rather interesting part of his background: he was born to nine mothers. And those nine mothers also happened to be sisters. Confusing, eh?

Experts on Norse mythology still don’t know why or how this legend came about. Some scholars suggest that the nine mothers are a reference to the nine realms that Heimdall watched over.

How did Heimdall die?

When Ragnarök began, the Gods of Aesir united to fight the great battle initiated by Heimdall’s horn. 

From the second the Gods heard the siren, they knew Asgard was in danger from a great army of chaos. This unfortunate battle had been anticipated for many years. Ragnarök – and their doom – was inevitable. 

The army was comprised of several evil monsters including wolves, serpents and giants. The battle was a bloody one and brought about great catastrophe. 

The monsters, being so powerful, would ultimately end the lives of many Gods, including Heimdall. But who was the mastermind behind the forces of evil? That would be none other than Loki.

Loki led the villains over the rainbow bridge, and from that moment on, chaos and death reigned. 

So, who killed Heimdall? 

Towards the end of Rangarök, most of Heimdall’s fellow deities had perished in the fight. However, Heimdall still survived. 

Heimdall and Loki met in a dual which became the final battle of Ragnarök. They slayed each other several times until there was one winner. Except there wasn’t one. 

The two enemies ultimately killed each other, and as a result, the land of Asgard burned. 

Heimdall vs Loki: why are they rivals, and what happens between them?

Even before their final battle, Heimdall and Loki were always known to be rivals. In fact, the two go way back.

In one poem from the Prose Edda called Húsdrápa, the two take the form of seals and fight over a stolen necklace. (Yes, seals, like the animals you might see on a beach!).

Loki killed Heimdall
Loki / Gage Skidmore (CC)

Loki was always causing trouble for the Aesir, which was another reason that Heimdall showed such hostility towards him. Heimdall was the guardian of Asgard, and Loki was constantly putting it at risk.

Differences between the original Heimdall and the Marvel Heimdall

Now that you are familiar with the original mythological version of Heimdall, how does this compare to his portrayal in contemporary media such as the Marvel films?

Some mythology enthusiasts and Marvel fans claim that the Marvel films portrayed Heimdall pretty accurately.

In the Thor movies, Heimdall plays the guardian of the Gods who stands upon the rainbow bridge – just like his role in Norse mythology.

However, there is one rather notable ‘inaccuracy’ in the Marvel movie: how Heimdall dies. In the film, Heimdall does not die in a battle against Loki, but against the Mad Titan Thanos.

Additionally, in the movie, it is never revealed that Heimdall is related to Odin or Thor. 

As well as a few characteristic differences such as his golden eyes, the Marvel Cinematic Universe version of Heimdall does a pretty good job of portraying him and his role as a God.

How did Heimdall have a son?

In Norse mythology Heimdall is recorded as having several children with humans, though there is no record of any wives and the children are all unnamed.

Some scholars suggest that it is these children who are the origins of the Norse three-tiered class system.

In the Eddic poem Rígsþula, a Norse god called Rígr (or Ríg) was described as being another name for Heimdall.

And it is Rígr, who developed the three social classes in Norse society, known Jarl, Karl and Thrall (or Þræll).

In the Marvel Thor films, however, Heimdall married Grace and had a son named Astrid Heimdallson, who inherited Heimdall’s all-seeing eyes.

When Astrid lived in New Asgard, Norway, he changed his name to Axl, after Axl Rose, the lead singer of his favourite band, Guns ’n’ Roses.

FAQs about Heimdall

Are Thor and Heimdall related?

So, Are Heimdall and Thor brothers or not? Well, it depends which version of the story you believe!

According to Norse mythology, Heimdall is the son of Odin and younger brother of Thor. However, in the Marvel movies, there is no mention at all that they are related.

Who are Heimdall’s parents?

According to the Prose Edda, Heimdall’s father was Odin and he had nine mothers, who were the nine daughters of Ægir and Rán!

Who would win in a fight between Thor and Heimdall?

Although Heimdall is undoubtedly powerful, he never really challenged his older brother. And some sources suggest that this is because he knew that Thor would win a battle between them.

Thor is generally considered to be the strongest of the Aesir gods, and has the most powerful weapon, the hammer Mjolnir.

And while Hemdall’s excellent hearing and eyesight would help him to avoid defeat fora while, it’s likely that Thor’s superior strength and powers wold win out in the end. 

What’s Heimdall’s weapon?

Heimdall’s weapons were the Hǫfuð and Gjallarhorn. The Gjallarhorn is the horn he used to alert the Gods of danger. The Hǫfuð (or hofund) was the Bifröst sword he carried. 

Why does Heimdall have orange eyes in the Marvel movies?

Although it is not explicitly explained why Heimdall has orange eyes in the Marvel films, it is most likely due to his keen eyesight or “all-seeing eyes”. 

In Norse mythology, Heimdall was not depicted as having orange eyes.

Is Heimdall black in Norse mythology?

No, in Norse mythology, Heimdall was depicted as white. In the Thor films, however, Heimdall is played by the fabulous black actor Idris Elba.

Idris Elba play Heimdall in the Marvel movies
Idris Elba / Harald Krichel (CC)

Why is Heimdall called “the white god”?

Heimdall was sometimes referred to as the “white god”. Whiteness in Old Norse is said to be linked to beauty, uprightness, or purity.

The colour white was also referred to as being unstained or untainted. In Heimdall’s case, he had no secrets and had nothing to hide. He was simply a God of truth.

Why is Heimdall associated with a ram?

In some sources, Heimdall is also known as Hallinskidi, which means “ram” or “the horned one”, and ram is said to be one of his main sacred animals.

See also: 
What is the vesvigir symbol and what does it mean?
Viking tattoos: ideas and inspiration
Norse gods, goddesses and giants
The valkyrie symbol: what does it mean?

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